There haven’t been any major physical changes at Sanford Stadium this year — certainly, nothing along the lines of last year’s unveiling of the West End Zone project. Still, the place is getting a new, expanded name, and the celebration of that honor for Vince Dooley actually might give some fans a reason not to skip opening cupcake Murray State.
The official ceremony to dedicate “Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium” will take place Between the Hedges prior to the Dawgs’ 2019 home opener on Sept. 7.
With kickoff set for 4 p.m. against the Racers, an FCS opponent that hails from Kentucky and plays in the Ohio Valley Conference, you typically would expect not only a few empty seats, but some late arrivals. However, UGA is urging fans to be in their seats by 3:30 p.m. for the Dooley Field festivities. The longtime Georgia coach and athletic director and his family, as well as captains from every team during his tenure in Athens, are scheduled to attend, along with other dignitaries.
Seeing Dooley and some of his former players on the field might actually be the football highlight of the day.
As for what else is new at Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium this season, Matt Brachowski, associate athletic director for internal operations, passed along a summary that also appears in the 2019 Georgia Football Fan Guide, and among the changes are the addition of an all-new LED lighting system for the field and seating bowl. The new system is more energy efficient, they say, and brighter than the old lights. It also allows the lighting to be digitally adjusted, synchronized to music and used to produce special effects. (Now they can dim those lights for the fourth quarter Light Up Sanford display by the fans!)
I get a lot of questions from fans about stadium concessions, and whether leaving your seat to get them will be cheaper or faster. Well, it should be faster. The athletic association said the menu listings “continue to be streamlined and all prices have been rounded off to the dollar in an effort to minimize time in line.”
They’ll continue to offer the previous “grab-n-go” tents at various locations (including the West End, Gate 7 plaza, near Sections 127-128 and 130-131 on the south side) and also on the 100-level of the north side, where concession stands by Sections 103-104 (yay!), 108 and Gate 4 will be converted to grab-n-go, to offer quick-serve items like bottle drinks, sandwiches, pizza and an assortment of packaged snacks (including frozen lemonade, sure to be popular on what’s likely to be a hot opening day).
The food court areas will continue to have name-brand chicken sandwiches, barbecue and pizza offerings.
The only other major change announced concerns parking, always a sore spot with UGA fans. Recent campus construction has eliminated Lot #29, the Physical Plant lot. To accommodate donors previously parking in this lot, the athletic association says it now will reserve the Printing Lot (190 River Road) and a portion of the South Campus Parking Deck for donor parking.
And, if that seems to you to be just the latest way other fans are being pushed aside for the big donors, well, get used to it. As the Athens Banner-Herald noted recently, high-end donors basically have financed the recent athletic facility building boom, and, in the SEC, only Texas A&M derives more of its athletic budget from donor contributions than Georgia.
Of course, there’s one other change coming this season to UGA home football games, but it won’t affect most of you: The Magill Lounge area above Gate 6 on the 200 (club) level will allow 200 Magill Society members who have donated a minimum of $100,000 (with those who have pledged $250,000 guaranteed a spot) to buy alcohol, already available in the private sky boxes. The rest of the stadium will remain alcohol-free (except for what’s smuggled in).
Even Matt Borman, deputy athletic director and executive director of the Bulldog Club, acknowledged to the ABH that “there’s a perception right now that we only care about the high-end donors and certainly we’ve got to do our best to make sure we’re taking care of those individuals, but we try to have a relationship with as many people as we possibly can that are donors to UGA and season ticket holders. We care about everybody and it’s a cliché, but we want everybody to feel a part of what we’re doing.”
As I wrote a few months back, I sometimes wonder whether the UGA athletic brain trust recognizes what a wonderful fan base it has beyond the big donors of the Magill Society or even the more modest donors of the Hartman Fund.
Along those lines, Blawg reader Arnold Sheidler, who sits in Section 119, Row 56, dropped me a note saying, “as a long-time ‘small potato’ season ticket holder, I have often wondered about the game day experience the athletic department envisions for its fans.”
Arnold’s suggestions on improvements they could consider include:
- Placement of TV monitors around the concourses to enable fans to keep up with the game “while enduring excruciating waits for concessions.” (Arnold obviously hasn’t experienced the joys of grab-n-go yet.)
- A sound system that clearly reproduces the spoken word. “Often it is garbled into unrecognizable gibberish,” he said.
- Concession prices that don’t resemble “eating at The Ritz.” (He cites the example of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which, courtesy of Falcons and Atlanta United owner Arthur Blank, features super-cheap concession prices.)
- A separate student gate, which would expedite Stadium entry (“see Notre Dame Stadium,” Arnold noted).
- Operating ceiling fans throughout to circulate air during “those stifling hot early games.”
As Arnold sees it, the cost of implementing these suggestions would “amount to ‘rounding error’ costs in a multimillion dollar budget, but they would enhance the game day experience of the fans. A little love goes a long way.”
It’s also worth noting that quite a few schools, including Alabama and Oklahoma, are implementing changes at their stadiums in hopes of stemming the creeping decline in college football attendance, which has dipped to its lowest mark in 22 years.
The Athletic did a long article on this problem, and it noted that Bama is in the early stages of a three-phase renovation aimed at giving fans the best possible experience.
Oklahoma does Fan Fests for each home game outside the stadium, as does Texas. Those normally include live music, food trucks, various entertainers and games like corn hole. Florida also has experimented with food trucks and a festival-like atmosphere around its stadium.
And, recognizing that attendance by students (the alumni of tomorrow) sometimes falters, even at Bama (as Nick Saban complained about last season), the folks in Tuscaloosa are looking to enhance the student experience by adding a 10,000-square-foot student plaza near their seats that will include new concessions, restrooms, fans, TVs, charging stations and water stations.
Also, to try to stem the decline in attendance, some schools have changed their in-stadium alcohol policies in general fan areas, allowing fans outside of private suites to purchase beer and wine, with alcohol monitors present throughout the stadium.
“People seem appreciative of the fact that we trust them to be adults, and, very frankly, the number of alcohol-related incidents has gone down,” Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson told the Athletic.
Those who have studied attendance at college football games say factors differ from school to school, but some are fairly universal: the total cost, inconsistent kickoff times, bleacher seats that are too cramped and uncomfortable, slow and expensive concessions and, of course, enduring congested traffic to and from the game.
The quality of opponent matters greatly, too, which is another reason (besides positioning themselves for an expanded College Football Playoff in the future) that quite a few Power 5 schools, led by Georgia, have been upgrading their future nonconference opponents.
For the most part, Georgia seems not to have had a major attendance problem so far, aside from the obvious pockets of empty seats at cupcake games, but it’s noteworthy that, a month before the season, UGA still is selling tickets to some of its lesser home games this year.
Georgia has a strong season ticket base, filling about 58,000 seats (ticket packages arrived this past week), but I also got an email saying that, “due to visiting team returns,” a limited number of single-game tickets are being sold and filled on a first-come, first-served basis: Murray State ($55), Arkansas State ($55), South Carolina ($125) and Missouri ($80).
I have to admit, I was surprised they still have South Carolina tickets available, considering that, previously, Hartman Fund contributors were offered the chance to buy some of the tickets to this year’s game returned by the visiting school, and South Carolina subsequently was included (along with Murray State, Arkansas State, Kentucky and Missouri) in a five-game “mini plan” ticket offering.
Maybe, at the home opener, they ought to offer a grab-n-go package of a hot dog, a drink and a South Carolina ticket?